Category Archives: Northern mirror

John Stanley Martin – Australia as an Iceland of the south

One way of reading an antipodean country like Australia is through the lens of its symmetrical opposites. For many, Australia has been compared to Nordic countries. One of Australia’s leading Nordicists, John Stanley Martin, unfortunately passed away this week. Here he talking about the commonality between Australia and Iceland.

image John Stanley Martin, descendent of the Eureka rebels, went to Iceland to pursue a degree in Old Norse. He recalls a conversation with Icelandic novelist Sigurdur Nordal, who saw both nations as sharing the challenge of new beginnings:

As an Australian you understand Iceland better than the Europeans do, because we are Europe’s first colony. We are the first time they came. Every time there was a movement in Europe, there was always a group before—the Celts moving in, the Germanics moving in—and there would be an amalgam of the cultures… In Norway, from where they came, it was limited resources, someone gets more and someone gets less. Come to Iceland and it’s a free for all, grabbing land, so you don’t respect the environment in the same way any more.[i]

[i] John Stanley Martin, interview, 16 February 2001.

Dumont d’Urville’s epic tale of the noble New Zealander

imageInspired by Bougainville’s accounts of Tahiti, Jules Sébastien César Dumont d’Urville sought out a mission to explore the south. His first commission was in the Aegean, where he ‘discovered’ the Venus de Milo. In 1822 he was part of an expedition south, when it was still considered possible that France might recover some its recent losses with the acquisition of New South Wales. In his second voyage south, 1826-9, he studied the Pacific peoples and developed the distinction between Micronesia and Melanesia. Finally, in 1837 he was charged with the mission of reaching the magnetic south pole.

Dumont d’Urville was a keen scholar of Pacific cultures. He added Polynesian dialects to his wide range of languages, including Latin and Greek, English, German, Italian, Russian, Chinese and Hebrew. He died in a tragic train disaster with his family in 1842. After this death, a manuscript was discovered titled Les Zélandais: Histoire Australienne. He had decided against publishing this semi-fictional account of Maori life during his lifetime in case it threw doubt on his scientific writings.

Les Zélandais tells the story of the enlightened chief Moudi, who had been civilised by the influence of a virtuous Pakeha. Moudi’s rival, the barbarous chief Chongui, craves the Pakeha’s beautiful daughter Kadima and eventually forces her to marry him. They have a son, Taniwa, who resists his father’s brutal ways. Chongui sends Taniwa to Sydney in order to obtain fire arms. On his way back, Taniwa is shipwrecked, and eventually brought into Moudi’s kingdom as a captured slave, called Koroké. He soon proves his worth as a warrior and then falls in love with Moudi’s daughter Marama. Moudi eventually acknowledges Koroké’s virtue as a son-in-law, but is puzzled at the lack of knowledge of his family. Eventually Chongui wages successful campaign and takes Taniwa and Marama as captives. But Taniwa escapes and joins Moudi in a final battle against Chongui, at the climax of which the missionaries appear to instill peace and Taniwa is united with Marama.

The novel is based on the understanding that civilisation is not exclusive to Europeans. Even in the most savage cultures, such as Maori, it is possible to find individuals able to recognise the higher values of reason, godliness and charity. While seemingly favourable to the Maori as a redeemable people, Dumont is opposed to the concept of ‘noble savage’. Dumont subscribes to a more Hobbesian view of nature:

O happy Civilisation, fruit of the spirit’s meditations, fecund mother of enjoyment and bliss. Through you alone, roaming man of long ago, at the mercy of his passions, left his forests, gathered in groups and founded those superb cities which are evidence of his power and superiority among the beings of creation… In vain, a few jaundiced philosophes, a few morose critics have tried to deny your excellence and to defend an alleged state of nature which existed only in their disturbed minds. That state of nature is, in reality, only a state of debasement in which man is barely distinguishable from the beasts which surround him, and these same melancholy reformers would themselves blush at being taken back to that state. (p.84)

imageDumont’s elevation of the Maori is made possible partly by the denigration of the Australian Aborigine. While in Sydney, Taniwa hears of the hopeless state of native Australians:

‘this, my dear Taniwa, no more than thirty years ago was nothing but a vast, wild desert. Its inhabitants amounted to the birds in the air, the animals of the forests and a handful of those pathetic human beings whom you see going along our streets sometimes, almost naked, hideous and incapable of applying themselves to any kind of work or any kind of trade.’ (p. 127)

But in taking Maoris as his central characters, Dumont can’t seem to help using their position to pose questions about European culture. Taniwa is puzzled by the spiritless life of the people he observes in London:

‘I would never finish if I tried to report all their stupid customs, all their absurd practices which I have witnessed in quarters which pride themselves on being so enlightened. In short, where those people are concerned, their time is to contrived that every moment of their lives is devoted to imaginary duties and puerile offices, and it leaves them no time to devote to noble reflections of the spirit and to sublime and profound meditations.’ (p. 126)

Dumont’s more conservative position sees the South as a confirmation of European ideals. The benefits of civilisation among the Maori demonstrates the power of Western morality. To achieve civilisation, barbaric traditions have to be disowned. Yet, there is still something remaining in the Maori life that has a spiritual force often missing from the business of empire (particularly British).

Quotes taken from J.S.C. Dumont d’Urville The New Zealanders: A Story Of Austral Lands; (trans. Carol Legge) Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1992

Uruguay also exists

Montevideo, Uruguay

Looking from above, we often search for glimpses of north-ness down in the South. Along with the glittering Paris’s and Venices of the South, there are several locations that lay claim to the title ‘Switzerland of the South’. Each identifies with different elements of Switzerland. For Tasmania, it is the picturesque mountain scenery. In the case of New Zealand, it is libertarian values. But the title has seemed particularly apt for a tiny nation wedged between the super-powers of South America.

Uruguay was crowned the ‘Switzerland of South America’ in the first decades of the 20th century. Nature had little to do with this title. It resulted more from the European social democratic system of liberal values and tax laws introduced by President José Batlle y Ordoñez. For a period, Uruguay was blessed by a prosperity ornamented with art deco architecture.

Yet there are less idyllic aspects of Uruguayan history not so visible from high above. Down on the ground, we find a fiercely political contest between conservative and radical forces. In the mid 19th century, a nine year civil war pitched the conservative whites, supported by Argentina and based in provinces, against the liberal reds, supported by European interests and concentrated in Montevideo.

The North took great interest in this battle. The siege of Montevideo was compared by Alexander Dumas to the Trojan War. Giuseppe Garibaldi led the Italian legion in the eventual liberation of the capital. Europe cheered the liberal urban elites in their struggle against the feudal lords.

The political conflict during the 20th century was more internalised. During the 1970s and 1980s, Uruguay experienced a period of military repression which was particularly brutal, even by comparison with its neighbours. At one stage, Uruguay had the highest per capita percentage of political prisoners in the world. Like most other neighbouring countries, Uruguay is now governed by centre-left President, Tabaré Vázquez.

Ceramic cadombe scene (from Uruguay Embassy, Australia)

There is much in Uruguayan culture that is unique and different from the North. Unlike its neighbour Argentina, the culture of the African slaves survived to play a key role in defining its national identity. Candombe emerged in Montevideo as a dance performed by Africans in places called ‘tangos’. Today Candombe can be found as a procession of drummers who perform ‘llamadas’ (calls) as they march down streets—slowly to reference their previous life in chains. Competing tribes are distinguished by their own rhythm.


Also associated with carnival is Murga, a form of musical theatre derived originally from Cadiz, Spain. Murga is a play combining songs and recitative performed by a group of brightly dressed men, who sing in harmony to the accompaniment of percussion instruments. The content is often subversive and associated with resistance to previous dictatorships.

Joaquín Torres García El Mapa Invertido 1943
Joaquín Torres García

Leading cultural voices of Uruguay have strongly identified with its south-ness. The painter Joaquín Torres García lived in Paris during the 1920s, where he had been part of Pablo Picasso’s circle, and discovered pre-Colombian culture at the Trocadero. He returned in 1934 to establish the Escuela del Sur (School of the South), where he developed a movement unique to the South called ‘Constructive Universalism’. Torres García incorporated pre-Colombian symbols into a Western grid. For Torres Garcia, the South represented the future of art:

I have said School of the South: because, in fact, our North looks South. For us there must not be a North, except in opposition to the South… This correction was necessary; because of it we know where we are.[1]

Eduardo Hughes Galeano

The essayist Eduardo Hughes Galeano is a voice of conscience for Latin America as a whole. Books such as The Open Veins of Latin America and his three volume series Memory of Fire outline the brutal events that accompanied the emergence of Latin America. Recently in Democracy Now, Galeano described the cultural syndrome of impotence prevalent in the South:

…something condemning you, dooming you to be eternally crippled, because there is a cultural saying and repeating, “You can’t.” You can’t walk with your own legs. You are not able to think with your own head. You cannot feel with your own heart, and so you’re obliged to buy legs, heart, mind, outside as import products. This is our worst enemy…

For Upside Down World, he locates this lack of confidence particularly in Latin America:

All through the first half of the nineteenth century, a Venezuelan called Simón Rodríguez, travelled through the roads of our America, on a mule, challenging the new holders of power: “You,” Simon would cry out, “you who so imitate the Europeans, why don’t you imitate from then what is most important – originality?”

Mario Benedetti

The poet Mario Benedetti is equally famous across Latin America, though his politics is expressed in a more personal language. He began his writing career as a journalist, until his paper Marcha was shut down by the dictatorship. Bendetti was drawn out of Uruguay. Inspired by the 1959 Cuban revolution, he went to live in Paris during the early 1960s, when he wrote Noción de Patria (A Notion of My Country, 1962). This poem opposes imported models of place to the more authentic experience of unfamiliarity:

But now there aren’t any excuses left
Because it all relates back to this place
It always relates back to this place.
Nostalgia seeps out of books
And plants itself under my skin,
And this city that never sleeps,
This country that doesn’t dream,
Quickly becomes the only place
Where the air is mine
The fault is mine
And the sag in the mattress is mine,
And when I extend my arm I’m sure
About the wall I touch, or the emptiness that surrounds me,
And when I look at the sky
Over here, I see clouds, and over there, the Southern Cross
Everybody’s eyes make up my surroundings
And I don’t feel as if I’m on the outside
Now I know that I don’t feel as if I’m on the outside.

Maybe my only notion of my country
Is this urgent desire to say Us
Maybe my only notion of my country
Is this return to the uncertainly itself.[2]

After living in Havana during the late 1960s, Benedetti returned to Montevideo, where he founded a coalition of left-wing groups. Assassination attempts forced him to flee to Spain. Since his return, Benedetti has been a leading voice for the newly confident Latin America. In 2005, Hugo Chavez quoted his poem ‘The South Also Exists’ at the opening of the G-15 Summit:

With its French horn
and its Swedish academy
its American sauce
and its English wrenches
with all its missiles
and its encyclopedias
its star wars
and its opulent viciousness
with all its laurels
the North commands,
but down here
close to the roots
is where memory
no remembrance omits
and there are those
who defy death for
and die for
and thus, all together
work wonders
be it known:
the South also exists.

This performance by Joan Manuel Serrat responds to the vertical position of the South:[3]

New dimensions of Uruguayan culture are still being discovered. A publication by a 19th century anonymous Uruguayan writer has recently been unearthed. The Book of Disengagements is a series of aphorisms in the style of Ferdinand Pessoa, which celebrates non-being. In a very abbreviated form, they reflect the presence in absence where Uruguay seems to find itself:

You are nothing, true; but that nothing already is something.


Special thanks to Andres Pelaez for his assistance with this entry. Also see Carlos Capelán for a more complex perspective.

[1] Arnulf Becker Lorca ‘Alejandro Álvarez Situated: Subaltern Modernities and Modernisms that Subvert’ Leiden Journal of International Law 2006, 19, pp. 879-930

[2] Mario Benedetti Little Stones at my Window translated by Charles Hatfield, Willimantic: Curbstone Press, 2003

[3] A more politicised version can be found here.